Authors: Stant Litore
Tags: #Supernatural Thriller, #Fiction
Maybe she was just one of the people who lived at the lake—though it seemed unlikely, in that car that had never been intended for backcountry gravel roads. Someone’s rich niece or granddaughter from the city come up to visit, then.
Matt kept going. A few pale stars were already out, the air was biting at his hands, and as far as he could tell, he had at least a mile yet to go.
2 hours before midnight
This mountain lake lay under its sheen of ice, with just a few houses across it, placed far apart on the eastern bank. Matt’s walk had taken longer than he’d expected. Night had fallen. He moved out along the old, abandoned lake harbor where one fork of the gravel road ended. Gazing over the ice and over the water at those dark and silent houses. If people did live here, they certainly were quiet.
Yet as Matt stepped down toward the docks, a shriek cut the night. Matt whipped his head about, peering out into the dark. Where had that scream come from? He broke into a run along the abandoned docks, heard the sound of someone panting. Then he saw her.
One of the docks—old, old wood drenched by snowfall—had given way in the middle. There was a gap in the wood. Perhaps five feet below the dock, on the thin ice that had formed around the wooden supports, a woman, blonde, splayed out across the ice, hands and feet, just barely touching the ice with her fingertips and the toes of her shoes, holding herself up. Little shivers in the ice spreading out around her hands, the cracking a tiny, cold sound on the night air. A small whimper in her throat. Her breath a fog misting the ice below her face. Warming it.
Matt ran softly out onto the dock. Slowed, got down onto his belly. He slid over the hole, trying to spread out his weight as much as he could. The rotted wood was cold against his belly. He could feel it even through his jacket, and it was giving way a little beneath his right
hip. The whole thing might collapse under him like soggy cardboard, dropping him onto that ice, crashing through it, taking them both down into that death water. Matt swallowed.
Gripping the ax just below the head firmly, he extended the haft carefully toward the girl. “Grab hold!” he called. “Grab hold!”
She held completely still.
The cracking of the ice, that thin sound.
“I can’t,” she said. Her voice quivered.
“Come on. Come now.” He edged forward, felt the dock giving a little more. Moved that haft until it nearly tapped the girl’s cheek.
“If I move…”
“Don’t move, and you’re going under. Come on. Grab the ax.”
For just a moment, she looked up from the ice, her eyes so dark and round with her fear. Her gaze met his, then she gave the smallest nod and brought her hands up, leaning back, grabbing the haft. The cracking of the ice became a growl, then a shattering like a house made of glass. Matt pulled, squirming back over the dock. Her scream. But he could feel her weight on the other end of the ax, hear her breathing loud, see her eyes staring up at him. He had her. She was safe.
Then the wood parted under him. Quickly, Matt rolled aside, adrenaline pumping into his blood. He didn’t let go of the ax. The wood where he’d lain sagged, soggy and ready to collapse at a touch.
Suddenly the ice cracked like the sound of a board breaking. Matt dug in with his feet, pressing his belly against the dock, hoping more of it wouldn’t give way. He pulled the ax up, breathing hard. Saw the woman’s face as he brought her up to the dock. Blue eyes and hair so
blonde it was nearly white, Danish or Norwegian perhaps. A pretty face, though her cheekbones were sharp. A face he’d seen before. At the library in Arlington. And in the sports car, that had been her, too. A stab of suspicion in his chest, but he had no time to think about it. Gripping the ax below the blade with one hand, he grabbed her sleeve with his other hand, pulled her up onto the dock, head and belly. She wiggled the rest of the way up. Jacket and sweater, faded jeans, winter boots. Matt rolled onto his side, but before he could sit up, the girl rolled into him and, with a flash of steel, ripped a knife from its sheath at her belt. The edge cold against Matt’s throat. Pain in her eyes. “Fuck you,” she cried.
Matt neither let go of his ax nor moved. The knife’s edge was very sharp against his skin. “Hello to you, too.” His voice muted with shock.
“You killed all those people,” she hissed. “And never thought, never thought even once, what that would do to me. You fucking asshole.”
Matt kept very carefully still, looking up at her. “Did I miss something?”
“Shut up. Just shut up.” Her hand trembled. Matt felt warm blood on his skin. Held his breath. A shallow cut. He hoped.
Time seemed to stretch itself out. They stared at each other, connected and divided by the line of that blade. The girl was panting, her face white. She bit her lip but didn’t cut any deeper.
“Say something, you fucker.”
“I’m not the killer.” Matt kept his tone slow and calm.
She blinked. “Richard?” Her voice tentative.
“Typically I go by Matt.”
The knife didn’t move from his throat. “How can I be sure?”
He swallowed, trying to think of how to reassure her, how to keep this crazy young woman from carving into him—when suddenly she withdrew the knife, letting her breath out slowly. “Richard wouldn’t carry an ax.” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re just some Good Samaritan, then.”
“Yeah. Sort of.” Matt rubbed his throat ruefully.
“Mmm-hmm. And you’re just randomly walking out along this dock in subzero temperatures after dark. With an ax.”
“Yeah. Imagine that.” He looked at her carefully. There was no writhing or rot in her face, and no real cruelty in her eyes, either, though her face shone with a clean fury just barely held back. He had no idea who she was or what had brought her here, but she was clearly after his quarry, too, and that meant she was in danger.
She quietly sheathed her knife at her belt, and the cold sheen of the metal drew his gaze. That knife was a strange thing with an ornate hilt stylized like a crucifix. The style made it look ancient, but it was too clean and too pretty to be old. Perhaps she’d had it custom made.
“He’s not a vampire,” Matt offered dryly. “He’s a serial killer.”
“This will work on either.”
“You’re hunting him, too.”
Matt nodded grimly.
“Who’d he kill?” Her eyes softened. “Your wife? Your sister?”
“A lot of people.”
“Well. You can go back. I’ve got this, Samaritan.”
She looked at him.
“My name’s Matt. Matt Cahill.”
She shrugged and got shakily to her feet. He steadied her with an arm but she pulled away quickly, her hand on her knife. Man, that quick reflex toward her blade. Again.
“Suit yourself, Crucifix Girl.” He shook his head. “I saw you. At Arlington library. And later. You passed me on the road.”
Her face went still.
“How did you know to come here? I’ve been trailing this man since Anacortes.”
“Chehalis,” she whispered.
Matt looked at her but said nothing. If she’d been on this trail since Chehalis, she’d been on it most of the year and had endured it going cold twice. That sounded like an obsession. Who was this blue-eyed vigilante he’d rescued from the ice? “What do you know about this killer?” He watched her intently.
“Nothing I plan to tell some stranger with an ax.” She turned away, walked carefully down to the end of the dock. She watched her feet and gave the gap where the wood had fallen through a wide berth. Matt tucked the ax under his arm, blew on his hands to warm them, then followed.
He found her staring down at a boat tied there, a sixteen-foot rowboat with oars stowed beneath its benches and a small motor fastened to its stern. A little ice was forming around it, but the ice was thin and he could use one of the oars to break it free. Matt glanced at the houses across the water, where the last potential victims before the mountains were to be found. The other fork of the gravel road took the long way around the lake, but he was tired of arriving late to the scene. Maybe there was a faster way across. Grimly, he tossed his ax in, then leapt down
into the boat himself, felt it rock beneath him, the ice cracking as it did. He felt the woman’s gaze on him. Glanced up, saw her head silhouetted against the starlight, the sheen of her eyes.
“Isn’t that stealing, Samaritan?”
“Borrowing,” he said. “I’ll bring it back tomorrow. And quit calling me that.” He stowed his ax beneath the bench and took up one of the oars, began attacking the thin sheet of ice around him. The exertion felt good—or maybe it just felt good to be smashing something. “It’s going to get a lot colder. Why don’t you get back to your car. Drive back to Darrington. I saw a motel just off the county road.” He struck the ice carefully free of the motor. Very carefully. Just in case. His breath a fog before his face.
“You’re not leaving me here, Samaritan. No way.”
A thump behind him, and the boat shuddered. He turned to face her.
“No,” he said.
“Cold killed my engine. And I never turn down a free ride.” Her breath soft in the dark.
“I’m not taking you.” Matt glanced up at the dock. Five feet. He could lift her back up there. If she was cooperative.
He met her gaze, the hard glint in her eyes.
Cooperative. Not likely.
He nodded down at her sheathed knife. “You’re quick with that,” he said.
He could see the protest in her eyes, the words she wanted to say—
I know how to use it, I’m good with this knife, I won’t freeze up if there’s trouble
—all those words. Saw her holding them back.
But his objection wasn’t that she couldn’t fight.
“Ever killed anyone?” he said.
Her breath a fog from her lips. “No,” she said finally.
“Now’s not the time to start.”
“It is cold,” she said. “And it’s a long walk around. So it looks like you have a passenger.” Her right hand rested on her thigh. Very near her knife.
Matt tried to stare her down another moment. Then he laughed quietly and sat down on the bench. So be it. It was rare that he was giving someone else a ride. Maybe karma was collecting. He reached wearily for the oars. “Better sit down.”
She did, on the short bench at the stern. Watching him.
“You demanded a ride,” he said, sliding one oar into its oarlock, then the other. “I didn’t offer you one. So stop looking at me like I’m going to lure you out into the middle of the lake and attack you.”
He glanced at her. She was serious.
“No,” he said.
She nodded, as if she’d just confirmed a guess. But her hand didn’t leave the knife at her hip.
He took up the oars, pulled vigorously. The boat leapt beneath him, a surge of motion over that cold, sluggish water. It was an oddly powerful feeling, moving the boat out, powered only by his strength and his will.
Crucifix Girl watched him. “There’s a motor.”
It was the first time he’d heard amusement in her voice.
“Yeah,” he said, “and we’d be lucky if the gas hasn’t frozen solid. And if I was able to start it up, we could announce we’re coming to whatever’s across this lake.” He spoke in a
loud whisper, not wanting his voice to carry over the water. In this cold, his voice would carry far. He supposed he’d made enough noise breaking the ice free. And the woman’s scream must have carried. Still, no need to add to it.
“Don’t you mean whoever? Thought you didn’t believe in vampires.”
“Neither do you.” Matt heaved at the oars, rowing as silently and quickly as he could. “How did you know to come here? As far as I can tell, the cops haven’t figured it out.”
“You did,” she said.
He shook his head. “Just a guess.”
They were both silent for a minute. Matt pulled at the oars. Tilted his head back and saw a sky so full of stars it almost hurt the eyes to look at them. All that beauty burning in the empty dark. He suddenly felt small. His life, hers, the lives of those his quarry had killed, this boat on a lake that didn’t even have a name on his map: beneath those billions of stars, everything he knew was small. But that didn’t mean those things didn’t matter.
“You haven’t said why you are out here.”
“It’s what I do,” Matt said.
“That’s not an answer.” The eyes she turned on him were the same blue as water when it is violently cold. “You’re following him, like I am. That’s clear. You even have a plan, Samaritan?”
“Not yet. But it will probably take another fifteen minutes to get over this water. That gives me fifteen minutes to plan.” He glanced at that dark, forested bank. Despite his words, he was worried. If the killer was out here, how was he to locate him? He couldn’t just start knocking on doors. Out here, he’d probably be answered with a shotgun.
“You’re something, aren’t you?” She shook her head. “All right, you asked me what I know. His name is Richard Oslo, and he’s killed nineteen people.” A quiver in her voice.
Oslo. Like Norway. Matt filed the name away. Something in him burned at the thought of nineteen lives snuffed out.
He’d only known about fourteen of them.
“So what else do you know?”
“Help me,” Matt said. “Whoever you are. Before any more innocent people die.”
She shook her head.
“What?” he asked.
“He doesn’t kill innocents.”
He leaned on the oar a moment, looked at her. “What do you mean?”
She looked out over the water for a moment. The fog of her breath. “They all have a secret,” she said. “Something dark inside them.”
“Dark.” His face went grim at the word.
“Something they’ve lived with all their lives. Something they’ve hidden. A regret, a crime. The first one he killed was a pedophile.”
“How do you know this?”
“I know him.”
“Why’d you mistake me for him, then?”
She didn’t answer. She kept staring at the water, water cold and darker than the heart.
Matt resumed his rowing, felt the strain of it in his arms, a good strain—the feeling of being alive. He was thinking hard. He didn’t know this woman or whether he could trust her. Richard didn’t seem like the type of killer to hunt with colleagues or accomplices, but Crucifix Girl seemed to know a lot about him. Or said she did. He glanced at the shore ahead. Nothing to be seen there but dark cedars and a few dark houses. Many of them had no lights in the windows. For some reason that unnerved him. He couldn’t have said why, and he knew it was irrational. It was the middle of the night; who kept their lights on all night? This wasn’t the city. Yet the dark silence of that shore ate at his insides. He swallowed back the unease. He couldn’t afford to be afraid of the dark.